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Timeless Lessons from Ma

My mother, Aparna, is 88 years old. This morning she told me, “Shomai kat te chai na!” - time is too still. This is the same thing Tarun’s mother used to say. It’s heart-wrenching to watch these powerhouses age and soul-soothing to think of their timeless lessons.

After their wedding, my parents lived in England for a few years. Ma traveled there on her own in her mid twenties, first time by plane. Her route was Bombay to Karachi to Rome and then to London. On one of the legs she had terrible air sickness and was moved to first class so she could lie down. In Karachi, the airline took the passengers to a restaurant for dinner. She talks about this as if she journeyed yesterday.

In England, she worked in a photo shop, developing prints. They lived as paying guests with Mr. and Mrs. Hall. For years afterwards, they stayed in touch and we visited The Halls when I was five. Ma and Baba traveled through Europe on their way back to India and he chronicled their journey in brilliant photos that we treasure as best as we can. I imagine an elegant couple in black-and-white. Carefree and adventurous, hardworking and intelligent.

She returned to India on the SS Stratheden, just shy of my brother's birth. She enthralls us with stories of climbing the upper bunk in their room, eight months pregnant! She redefined fearlessness is so many ways.

I followed five years after my brother. While Baba worked long hours, Ma became the CEO of the house. Although raising us kept her busy, she made time to transform herself. When I was in elementary school, she took conversational English class for fluency. When I was in middle school she started a shop, called "Shilpi", where women from the villages made embroidered sarees. She helped these women find financial independence, steal moments of peace from their busy lives, and found peace herself.

Mother's culinary skills are legendary. From Fish Florentine to Apple Pie to cakes to a plethora of Bengali dishes, her repertoire made her a commanding presence in the kitchen. Yet, she never imposed, didn't force us to take the mantle from her. When I began managing my own home, I would call her for recipes which she gave willingly, constantly adjusting for ingredients that I may not have. Her versatility is rare and her willingness to traverse a totally different context even rarer.

Baba had a wanderlust that I've rarely seen. From trips to the Palamu forest to Kanyakumari, we drove all over India. In between, we flew to Europe and America. Ma executed Baba's travel vision flawlessly. The two of them gave us an education that the classroom never could. Our father's shadow nurtured our passions. Ma's taught us discipline and how to get up after falling.

The most striking memory about Ma is related to my childhood report cards. Anybody who knows me well knows I am not the brightest bulb in the room. Naturally, I brought home some undesirable grades. Conveniently for me, this was the era of "load shedding" - rolling power cuts due to energy shortage. I'd wait for the lights to go off. Amidst dimly lit candles, I'd slide my report card to my parents for their signature.

I feared Ma's BA in Psychology far more than Baba's MD. He would quietly tell me to do better. She would draw the candle closer to inspect the report card.

An expected lecture would follow on the grades but a yelling would befall if the behavior marks were less than excellent. "Nobody has time for your moods!" she would bellow. What a life lesson that was! Don't project your moods on others. Be the best version of yourself always. To this day, when I am angry or frustrated and take it out on Tarun or the boys, I hear her voice ringing in my head.

She laments about what she used be and the little she can do now. The progression is natural, the emotional toll immense. I remind her of her younger days or I prompt her about her childhood to have memories come tumbling. I listen quietly without interruptions except to offer words that occasionally go missing. I record these monologues.

With failing eyesight and a weak heart, she can't read and exert too much. She stays in her room, eats like a bird, watches TV, talks to her besties, waits for me and the grandkids to call, and she sleeps a lot. I asked her if she feels more tired than usual and she said no. She sleeps because that is one way to tackle time.

Then she apologized for complaining. "Don't think I am doing poorly. I just wish time would pass more quickly."

I don't know what I did to deserve her. When time moves too slowly, may she continue to remind me that all is well as long as I can sleep to get to the other side of the day and when I am awake may I be grateful for the life I've had.

(B/W picture of Ma taken by Baba, Puri, 1967; Color pic in Patna, 2019)

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